When The Waka Calls

SPASIFIK contributor FAUMUINA FELOLINI MARIA TAFUNA’I took part in Tuia – Encounters 250, commemorating 250 years since the first onshore meetings between Maori – the tangata whenua of Aotearoa New Zealand – and Pakeha in 1769-1770. Tuia 250 also celebrated the voyaging heritage of Pacific people that led to the settlement of Aotearoa many generations before. As a crew member, she shares her own personal journey of discovery and the remarkable links shared among people of the Pacific

 

 

Waka people say the waka calls you. Sometimes you try to move all the parts of your life to be on a waka, but it keeps throwing you off. I thought the same might be true for me to sail upon the waka Faafaite from Tahiti to Rarotonga for the beginning of Tuia 250. Two other videographers were supposed to take up this opportunity, but family obligations had grounded one in Aotearoa and the other was called back home. I had tried twice before to travel to Tahiti, but my plans didn’t work out. This time the waka cleared a space for me.

 

For me to say yes took a five-minute phone call to an elderly uncle I live with and letting my 17-year-old son know I had taken up the assignment.

 

So, why me? Well, I was at home on waka hourua (double-hulled voyaging canoes), at home on Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean, and I had enough media experience to pull this off. I also knew a few key people onboard – the three navigators; Moeata Galenon (who has contributed to SPASIFIK), Piripi Smith and Titaua Teipoarii, the captain India Tabellini and one of the watch captains, Dale Dice – as well as the waka leaders Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and Jack Thatcher, who were overseeing Tuia 250, and video producer Anna Marbrook. It may seem a lot of names to list, but joining a waka crew is not like catching a bus or a plane. You must know you can trust the captain and know you can work under him or her and get along with the other crew members. It’s also wise to have the blessings of your elders.

 

When I arrived, Moeata took hold of my arm and said, ‘This is why you were allowed to come.’ She told the others to look at my tattoo of the octopus that covers my left forearm. Octopi are spiritual beings for the people of Tahiti. There are eight passes that are tentacles that point to different Pacific Islands – with the Tahiti island of Raiatea in the centre.

 

We had a farewell ceremony at an open marae among the hills of Papeete. Earlier in the week, each voyager had taken a mauri stone to be blessed. I was still in Aotearoa when they took up the stones. At the ceremony, each voyager collected their stone. For me, I chose to sit and pray, ask for courage and safe passage. They called up the last three people to collect the remaining stones. One of these was Hoturoa, leader of Te Toki Voyaging Trust and Tuia 250 co-chair. Just after collecting his stone, he came over and gave it to me. His daughter Noenoe, sitting next to me, said that it was the same stone she had presented earlier. I have served under Hoturoa since 2010. He is my chief, my friend and family. He is also a person who sees horizons. So, when I decided to support Tuia 250 to try make a better future for the grandchildren of Aotearoa, I followed.

 

 

It had been seven years since my last ocean voyage. Following my journey in Te Mana o Te Moana in 2012 to Vanautu and Solomon Islands, I had only completed short coastal sails. Stepping onto Faafaite, I felt I was returning home. I covered my bed in a bright orange lavalava and exhaled, letting the air in my lungs flow out in a big gust. Memories flooded in about my first bunk-mate and watch captain, Ema Siope. I messaged Ema back in Aotearoa to let her know I was back on the waka and still had her wet weather gear she had gifted me many years ago. I told her I felt the presence of our ancestors. I also felt her telling me to trust myself. Ema was a mighty and respected voyager in Aotearoa and the Pacific. She messaged me back. Uso, Kia tau. Sister, may it come.

 

I’m 48-years-old. I went to a gym once this year and then spent three days on the couch recuperating. My knees have more arthritis the older I get. Although I am less agile and strong, however, voyaging brings out the best me. A part of me rises to each physical and mental challenge. It’s overcoming small things, such as walking across the deck when your knees are aching. Trusting your balance as you go down to the port hull to wash your lunch dishes. Bracing yourself for showers with buckets of seawater in the opposite hull. Then holding the hoe (steering paddle) when it’s your turn, no matter what the weather is, and all the time trying to sail better. The practice of all this seems to multiply my abilities and resolve.

 

My role on Fafaaite is to identify daily stories and capture them on video. I have some stories that are already in motion such as covering Moeata and Titaua as they guide us to Rarotonga as part of a navigator test. Navigator Piripi, overseeing them, has been bestowed the title of Pwo, which is given to master navigators in the Pacific. The origins of this title come from the island of Satawal in Micronesia, and from Pwo navigator Mau Piailug who brought Pacific navigation back to Polynesia. Luckily for me, there is no end of stories on this waka. Stories of innovation, science, astronomy, engineering, musical creativity, of language, food and pragmatism, empowerment of women, of a balanced community and of leadership.

 

 

Captain India Tabellini is a female captain and the youngest onboard at 25. My watch captain Teva is a 62-year-old retiree who has been to all 118 inhabited islands in French Polynesia. His son Tevita is sailing with us. In the night sky, we look to Mahutonga (the Southern Cross), Uruao and Ranginui (the two pointers) to guide our direction. I learn that when the longest part of the cross is parallel to the ocean, the navigators can gauge our latitude with their hands, which have been calibrated to represent a certain number of degrees. My kete is overflowing with story ideas.

 

Before I left for my journeys, my boyfriend Michael wrote me a poem about taking his love out onto the sea. There must be many such poems from the ones we leave on shore. Reading it, I could hear it in te reo Maori. Both knowing this and the fact I then translated it provides me a quiet chuckle. My bones are Samoan, with a slight peppering of German. But I was raised in Christchurch, Aotearoa in the 1970s and down there, brown was brown. We stuck together because the numbers were not on our side. My first interaction with Maori was when my sister took me to kapa haka, so I could ask for bus fare for a school trip. The senior students said they would all pitch in if I joined the group and that was that. Now, all these years later, I am co-creating a waiata, written by a Papua New Guinean, translated by a Samoan, then edited by a pair of Hawaiian-Maori wahine. We agreed it would make a good song for poi.

 

Being on a Tahitian waka invites a sort of cultural fluidity that exists within Pacific people. Many times in many countries across the Pacific, I have been told I am like one of them. This includes Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Aotearoa, Wallis and Futuna and now Tahiti. Maybe it is because we make a real effort to be like each other, yet recognise and celebrate our differences. We try to learn each of the local languages we encounter, rather than impose our own or the language of the colonisers.

 

 

My watch captain Teva has taught me to say, “E aha te huru?” as a casual way of saying How are you doing?, and to respond with “Meita’i roa”, Really good. Moeata also explains that Tahitians view Samoans and Tongans as their ancestors, in the same way that Maori look to Tahitians. On Faafaite, where English can be a barrier and my French can only be used to order croissants, I try te reo Maori to communicate. Mostly, I am more successful and sometimes I try to use Samoan words and concepts to see if increases understanding.

 

For me, voyaging holds a space where you turn the impossible into the possible, the unknown into the known. I find an endless seascape comforting. I feel surrounded by my ancestors; their adventurous spirit, their brilliance to read the night sky, swells and weather, their oneness with the ocean and the waka. These are the footsteps of my ancestors.

 

About 15 years ago, my fascination with my voyaging ancestors took me on a research journey, reading all the books I could finding wayfinding. Then I was fortunate to attend a wananga in Bluff where Hoturoa and the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby were speaking. At the time, I was working for Ngai Tahu, who were beginning their voyaging revival. That wananga, followed by joining Te Toki Voyaging Trust, intensified by interest. I also began to take note of how the principles voyaging and navigation were relevant to many other areas. This included project design, classroom teaching, mental health and technology development. The application of wayfinding principles to various projects is now my main work, which led to me becoming an Edmund Hillary Fellowship Fellow in 2018.

 

On Faafaite, I try to look for other elements I might have missed on previous journeys. One aspect that resonates deeply with me is how mana or spirituality is present at all times. It provides a connection to the past and future, balance between male and female, the earth and the cosmos. I find Tahitian people to be very spiritual, with a deep cultural knowledge that appears for me in ceremonies. In the Pacific, certain islands have maintained their floral culture in using different flowers and leaves for ceremonies. When we left Papeete, the Tahitians were draped in fresh flower necklaces and leaves. When setting, sail we put these all together by the mauri stones under the mizzen (nautical) mast. We also had fresh necklaces by every bunk. At a certain point between Tahiti and Rarotonga, we broke up the necklaces and a special karakia was said, followed by clutches of petals scattered into the ocean. The ceremony was to farewell the tupuna, the ancestors of Tahiti and greet the tupuna of the ocean of the Cook Islands. On observation, Tahitian men have a gentleness of spirit that is endearing. It is reflected in their approach to women and their compassion, so evident, even in their dance. I pondered on whether embracing a male’s gentler side would help our young men in Aotearoa struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.

 

Another element, now part of my design model, is regarding the fishing up of islands. Each island has a cloud above it, which can be spotted half a day away. It was my first voyage that I saw this revealed in a way that became the main focus of the voyage. In my updated model, that cloud represents a question that must be asked of that island, and whether you should go there – Is it an island of opportunity, or an island of distraction? I also noted the steerers took upon themselves the responsibility of steering as accurately as possible to assist the navigators. They were also given multiple markers – from the direction of the swell, wind, rising and setting stars and the position of the sun. In an organization, this could be the operations team responding to the direction set by the governors.

 

 

Being on a Tahitian waka, invites a sort of cultural fluidity that exists within Pacific people. Many times, in many countries I have been told I am like one of them. I have been told this in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Aotearoa, Wallis and Futuna and now Tahiti. Maybe it is because we make a real effort to be like each other, to recognize and celebrate our differences. We try to learn each the local language rather than impose our own or the language of the colonisers. My watch captain Teva has taught me to say, “E aha te huru?” as a casual way of saying How are you doing, and to respond with “Meita’i roa”, Really good. Moeata also explains to me that Tahitians view Samoans and Tongans as their ancestors, in the same way that Maori look to

 

Tahitians. On Faafaite, where English can be a barrier, and my French can only be used to order croissants, I try te reo Maori to communicate. Mostly, I am more successful and sometimes I try to use Samoan words and concepts to see if that increases understanding.

 

All too soon, on Day 6, the clouds of Rarotonga are spotted. The crew are jubilant as we were directly in line with the island. The navigators in the pursuit of mastering their skills are less enthusiastic. They have retreated into analysis mode on how they could have navigated better. The direction was spot on, but Moeata and Titaua had judged us to be further away than we were.

 

I know that in a few hours’ time we will be tied up to a dock and my journey will have ended. I jokingly ask them to carry on past Rarotonga. But just as the waka had invited me on, it is now sending me home. I am sad to leave my team, my watch captain Teva and all these crew who have been so embracing. From the waka, we can hear Rarotonga tunes played on ukulele and soon we hear the welcoming chant of our sister waka crew, Marumaru Atua. Within minutes of arriving, we are given the sad news that Ema Siope passed away that morning. Ema had been navigating terminal cancer for several years and now she was embarking on a new journey. Uso, manuia lou malaga. Journey well, my sister. And now, it was time for me to return.

 

*Since writing this article, the waka has continued to call me on – sailing and recording stories of people embarking on their fir st waka journeys as part of Tuia 250.


Read this feature and more articles like it in the latest issue of SPASIFIK, out now.


15/01/20